They say that the books business is beleaguered, bordering on broken. Over-production, under-consumption and the looming threat of digital perdition are concentrating minds as never before. Will publishing, as many fear, follow music and movies into an illegal download free-for-all? Or will J.K. Rowling ride to the rescue with a clutch of Harry Potters, as she faithfully promised on Oprah?
The signs are not good. Indeed, if ever proof were needed that book publishing is bereft, we need look no further than last weekend's publicity stunt, when an attention-seeking authorlobbed his opus at President Obama. And missed.
On hearing of the episode, many of us naturally assumed that the stunt was some kind of postmodern protest or performance artwork, a wryly ironic echo of the George Bushshoe-shying incident. Maybe he threw a book about shoes. A hefty Taschen, possibly. The Jimmy Choo story, perhaps.
But no, it was just a guy trying to drum up some publicity. He threw his book in the audacity of hope rather than expectation. I've heard of pitching book proposals, but this is ridiculous.
As an impoverished author who once tried to get a spoof ofDan Brown — Agents & Dealers, it was called — into the Hollywood movie as a tongue-in-cheek product placement, I have every sympathy with yesterday's publicity-stunt puller. Still, it's pretty clear that his attempt was somewhat unimaginative, a sad regression from the glory days of book selling ballyhoo and what I have elsewhere described as "authorpreneurship."
Although literary types like to present themselves as tremulous creative artistes rather than bottom line-fixated businesspeople — Jonathan Franzen, for one — the reality is that many authors are blessed with considerable commercial savvy.
- Charles Dickens, for example, was a master self-publicist who undertook huge speaking tours to publicise his blockbuster novels, which often included advertisements for parasols, smelling salts, patent medicines, and more.
- Mark Twain, whose brand-me trademark was an immaculate white linen suit, hustled Huckleberry Finn like there was no tomorrow, offering all sorts of special two-for-one promotional deals. He also engineered a ban by straight-laced librarians, which worked wonders for sales when the scandal factor kicked in.
- Edgar Rice Burroughs exploited his lucrative Tarzan franchise to the max by developing an extensive range of ancillary merchandise, everything from toys and toothpaste to candy bars and what we today call "consumer tribes".
- Georges Simenon, the irrepressible author of a mega-selling series of police procedurals, at one stage volunteered to write a Maigret story in a glass box so that curious readers could watch him create another masterpiece. However, after generating enormous publicity and not a few negative comments about his brazen behavior, Simenon thought better of the stunt and attracted even more publicity thereby.
- Maigret's maker, moreover, was a mere amateur compared to Italy's Gabriele d'Annunzio, who faked his own death for publicity purposes, wrote salacious novels about high society hostesses, for publicity purposes, married and divorced legendary thespian Eleonora Duse, for publicity purposes, built a gigantic eccentric house overlooking Lake Garda, for publicity purposes, led a rag-tag army of volunteers into Fiume, for publicity purposes, and at the height of the First World War, flew over the Alps in a tiny biplane to drop propaganda leaflets on Vienna, for publicity purposes.
- Better yet was Harold Robbins. Now almost forgotten, Robbins cranked out copious steamy doorstoppers during the 1960s — The Carpetbaggers, The Dream Merchants, and The Betsy,among them — and, according to a former editor at Simon & Schuster, was the first "brand name" author. Not only did he become a byword for a certain kind of sexy novel but he intuitively sensed the promotional importance of the then new medium, television. Accordingly, he barnstormed the talk shows like a Yankee peddler of yore. "Harold," his literary agent once observed with astonishment and not a little admiration, "is the P.T. Barnum of the books business. Some writers won't lift a finger to help their books. Not Harold. I've never asked him to cross a tightrope over Times Square, but he'd do just about anything else I'd ask."
Okay, okay, a tightrope walk across Times Square is more David Blaine than bookish author territory. But compared to the wannabe author who paraglided onto the roof of Buckingham Palace to publicise his unpublished thriller, Canine Dawn — or the literary publicity stunt hatched by legendary PR man Russell Birdwell, which involved parachuting bunny rabbits on to the White House lawn during the Easter vacation — last weekend's book-throwing incident is pretty feeble, let's be frank. Granted, presidential endorsement has done wonders for authors in times past. JFK boosted the career of Ian Fleming. Ronald Reagan lent his weight to Tom Clancy. Bill Clinton was a Walter Mosley man (the Starr report, what's more, didn't hinder Nicholson Baker, Nicholas Sparks, Conan Doyle, et al). And George Bush, we are reliably informed, once took Camus's L'Étranger on holiday, as one does. But hurling a book at Obama? I ask you!
I'm being churlish of course. There was an even more unprepossessing literary incident last weekend. In London, Jonathan Franzen had his reading glasses stolen at the official launch party forFreedom. The miscreant escaped in the melee, leaving a ransom note for $100,000. After wading through a nearby lake — with a police helicopter in hot pursuit — one James Fletcher was apprehended and garnered acres of free publicity for his trouble.
Unfortunately, he doesn't have a book coming out, though he may well be penning one about his escapade as I write.